Antagonists, protagonists, and more importantly…

CONFLICT!

One of the best lessons I ever had was from my high school creative writing teachers. I’m going to paraphrase it, as it has been longer than I’d like to admit, but the essence is this: not every story has a bad guy, but every story has conflict. A central conflict is what drives the plot, motivates the characters, regardless of whose side they are on, and draws you through the story. Sometimes that conflict comes from an antagonist, and sometimes that antagonist lasts through the whole story. Not always, though – sometimes, a series of shortly visited antagonists drive the plot.

More important than determining the villain is the question “what is the protagonist’s goal?” and in the tradition of Monty Python, “what is his/her quest?” A good protagonist has to have goals. There has to be something they desire or wish to achieve in order to draw them through the story. A good protagonist also needs a quest, a mission that will help them achieve their goal. As an example, let’s say we have a story about a young woman who wants to be a writer. Besides clear madness, what is her motivation, her goal, for doing so? Let’s say that she wants to be a writer because nothing brings her more joy than remembering her grandmother telling her fantastic stories, and she wants to do that to. Her quest, then, is to find a way to tell fantastic stories to others, and in doing so, emulate her grandmother.

Once you have determined a character’s goal (or goals) and quest, you add conflict by making that goal more difficult to attain. After all, if we tell a story about a young writer whose dream is to tell fantastic stories like her granny, so she goes out, tells the stories, and is successful, the end…that’s a pretty dull story. No conflict means no reason to care. We have to add in conflict. This conflict can come from any direction – it could be a single adversarial antagonist, it could be a collection of short-lived antagonists, it can be an over-arching condition that antagonizes her.

A single antagonist that lasts the duration of the story could be someone who intentionally works to sabotage her ability to tell these stories, to write them down. It could be a jealous sibling who gran never spent time with due to favoritism. It could be a spouse who is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of life and resents the writer “wasting” time on her dreams, it could be a nasty critic who goes out of his way to berate and abuse the writer’s attempts. All of these antagonists could follow the character through the story, thwarting her at her attempts to achieve success and in general making…yes, conflict! And note, these characters DON’T have to be unsympathetic. In fact, sometimes the best antagonist is one who is quite sympathetic, but has goals that simply conflict with those of the protagonist. Keeping with the example we started with, let’s look at the writer’s spouse, shall we?

Our writer’s husband has his own goals and quests. To make it simple, we’re only worried about the ones that can’t play nicely with our protagonist. In this case, let’s say that the husband’s goal is to find a way to make ends meet. His quest is to enlist the help of his spouse to do so. Alas for him, her goals conflict with his, at least in the short term; as she learns the craft of writing, she is taking up time that could be spent working a second job or doing something else that could be bringing money in. We could make the husband a bit more sympathetic by giving him his own antagonisms too. Perhaps he has an injury, and though he works two jobs, they are menial and pay very little. All of this leads to conflict, that drives the story forward. Will he see that her writing could reward them in the future, or will the present’s crippling debt blind him from the possibilities? Conflict!

What if we want a series of smaller antagonists, rather than a single one in our story? What if our writer is unmarried, but has a number of detractors to her craft? One could be her boss at her day job – she pushes our writer relentlessly and overworks her while paying her a pittance. Every time our writer tries to make time to write, her boss steps in and demands overtime, extra work, taking things home. Do note, her antagonism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the writer’s goals. She isn’t doing this maliciously, at least, not maliciously towards the goal of writing. This is a short-term antagonist, though. Our writer can quit her job, delegate her workload, or come in extra early, and defeat this antagonism. But oh no! On her way in, petty antagonist #2, that wily motorcycle cop, pulls her over and gives her a ticket. She’ll have to work double the overtime load to be able to pay it off, because antagonist #3, the greedy landlord, was pounding on her door this morning and wants the rent ASAP! Again, the important thing here is that they all add conflict, and that conflict drives the character through the story and makes her want to succeed in her quest to achieve them. Sometimes, the antagonist isn’t even going to be a person. What if the writer found out she had a deadly illness? Or that a horrific natural disaster was about to strike? Or that the story she’s dreamed of telling has already been told almost identically by another author? What will she do? Sometimes, life itself is the greatest antagonist we can ever face.

And wow, this was a lot longer than I intended it to be. Hopefully, the point is clear. Know your characters. Know their goals. Know how they intend to achieve those goals. Then throw a wrench at them. That wrench can be anything, so long as it causes conflict. Because conflict is key.

Thanks for reading!

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4 comments

  1. I totally agree with you. I make little use of antagonistic characters. ‘Life’ generally provides all the difficulty my hero has to face, adding a Villain seems like over-kill.

    1. There are times when a villain is entirely appropriate, sure. A fantasy story about a hero taking back his kingdom from a power hungry despot? Totally needs a villain. But life itself is definitely difficult enough to provide the conflict needed in most stories all on its own! Hmmmm…does that make life itself a villain? ;)

  2. Hi, Mark, thanks for linking me to this from Chuck Wendig’s blog. I have been aware that I need to give my characters goals, but you take it further by asking why and how. “Why,” is a powerful question!

    I’ve come to a deeper understanding of my main character now, and am beginning to build in some conflict. Another interesting suggestion I saw was to think of how the protagonist can oppose the antagonist’s goal.

    I think it takes a lot of skill to write-in several opponents. You still have to increase tension and build to a climax, so the opposition has to grow stronger each time. It will take everything my protagonist has to keep going in the face of many types of antagonist. When you’re facing one villain, it’s easier to be stubborn, even when you’re suffering.

    1. It definitely takes a lot of skill to write multiple antagonists into a story. You have to take special care not to make it appear too much like a video-game escalation, where you fight harder and harder “thugs” until you reach the “boss fight”. Now, for some genres, this works fine, and is a perfectly accepted trope. You have a number of “minions”, that is, low level, easily defeated antagonists, a “dragon”, who is their immediate commander, and then the “big bad” who is the final antagonist and usually the most powerful. But again, this can make a story feel a bit formulaic, so such a build up has to be done with caution. My own preference is to make each antagonist roughly the same as the protagonist, but each with their own complicated goals. The tension in the story is created by weaving in more and more complications, more and more conflicting goals, all of which bog the protagonist down until they reach that moment where they are staring into the abyss, contemplating failure. Then, one by one, they begin to unravel the web in which they are entangled. They solve, sidestep, or otherwise disable or destroy their opposition, until at last they find success. Or…if I am in a darker mood, they try and they fail, but they learn something about themselves in that failure.

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